Whether you’re an educator or a student, manager or new employee, knowledge of the four stages of skill mastery can help you know where you are in your craft, and how far you’ve got to go.
It’s decided, this year’s the year. You’re going to learn to play an instrument. After all, haven’t you always wanted to be the one with the guitar around the campfire–jamming out Stairway to Heaven in front of a crowd of wide-eyed campers? Or maybe you’ve always liked the idea of playing the piano, and occasionally visualize yourself as that rambunctious cowboy banging away at the keys in a smoky saloon.
Whatever skill you hope to develop, learning something new takes practice, practice. And yes, more practice. And whether it’s learning to play the guitar, the piano or how to manage people, there are four stages one must journey through in skill development–
But, as we all know (and wish were not true sometimes), mastering a craft doesn’t happen overnight. Look at “overnight successes” for example. Upon closer examination there are typically year’s and year’s worth of hard work, mistakes, and failures lurking behind the scenes of their so-called success. Indeed, before learning any skill, we must begin naïve. This is called The Novice stage. As can be seen on the graph, a learner in this stage is both low on consciousness and low on competency. Having never been exposed to something before, he or she is “unconsciously incompetent.”
As you’re exposed to new concepts and skills, you start to realize your personal limitations. Sure you’ve picked a few things up, but you’re still all thumbs. You’re committed though, and you stick with it, and in doing so progress into The Apprentice stage. At this point you’re starting to admit your own incompetence and are becoming “consciously incompetent.”
It is in the stage of The Journeyman where the real work begins. In this stage: ‘Practice (most definitely) makes perfect.’ This stage is all about perspiration–
With any skill, technique or craft, the ultimate goal is to achieve a point where you are “unconsciously competent.” A natural. One could say a “genius.” In essence: it is the stage of The Master. You can spot ‘Masters’ right away. They pick up the guitar and it’s automatic. And not only is it effortless, often there’s no thought to it at all. Seen on the graph, this person is both high in consciousness and high on competence. They get it. Ask this person to play blindfolded, they can. Dare them to play on one foot, they will. When you’ve reached this stage in skill development, you’re a bona fide virtuoso. But it takes time. And while some skills in academic or business contexts can takes a few months, or weeks even, pure mastery of a complex skill can take much longer.
How long does it actually take to become a master or genius at something? Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers:
In many ways, this law of 10,000 hours is appealing. It means ‘success’ isn’t necessarily genetic, socioeconomic or generational. In addition, it’s not necessarily where you came from or who know. But quite simply how many hours you’ve logged in your craft. It’s reminiscent of the story of a woman who approached a famous violinist after he had performed one of his many magnificent concerts. Upon making her way to the violinist, the woman said, “Sir, I would give my life to play like you play.” The violinist replied, “Ma’am. I did.”
Van Gogh’s and Emerson’s
As we’re all aware, there’s a difference between theory and direct experience. Reading a book on engines and working underneath the hood of a car in your uncle’s garage for a week are different experiences. That’s why apprenticeships exist today. In fact, Vincent Van Gogh apprenticed with an art dealer before he became an artist. Plato was Socrates’ student. And Ralph Waldo Emerson took Thoreau under his wing early on. It’s highly likely that if you’ve mastered something, you’ve spent time with someone who had already done so. Vocational schools are coming back into vogue now for this very reason. We’ve been so academically driven for so long. But the reality is: do we really need to be able to understand calculus in order to repair an auto engine?
The Road to Mastery
So if you’re a Master, are you one for life? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Once you’ve reached mastery, you’ve got to keep practicing to stay sharp. Without regular practice, the slip from Master to Journeyman is all too easy. Teachers would be wise to prevent slippage by providing refreshers. Fundamentally, it’s important to remember that we all learn by doing. A famous quote by Confucius, says, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
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